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The Hot Summer of 2007 in Iraq!
ere in the UK, we call August the ‘silly month’ or ‘silly season’ since many people will have left on their summer holidays and the tabloid press scavenge for news items to fill their pages and so retain their readers’ interest!

14 August   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

But I am afraid it is not the silly season in Iraq! If anything, the country has been agog with activities where PM Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s coalition partners have been absconding from his 14-month-old government in disputes over political inertia, insecurity or sheer brinkmanship. On 1st August, the Sunni political bloc, the Accordance Front, announced the withdrawal of its six ministers from the splintering cabinet and so dealt another huge blow to any real hopes for maintaining a unity government. This came on top of the five ministers loyal to Sh’ia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who had also quit the government last April in protest over al-Maliki's reluctance to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

Moreover, one of the more painful blows to the government came from the Iraqi army when Major General Babaker Zebari, a Kurd who was army chief of staff, resigned on 31st July in order to leave for Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The resignation of this military man was followed by the resignation of nine other generals in protest against “Al-Maliki's interference with their professional work, and the weakness of the defence minister.”

During this uncertain time, President Jalal Talabani, has been using his skills to smoothen political feathers by convening “icebreaker lunches” with different politicians, whilst his prime minister just came back from two challenging visits to Turkey and Iran. As most of my readers know already, tensions have been ratcheted up considerably between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan in the past few weeks. The veteran US columnist Robert D Novak suggested recently that senior-level US officials have been working with their Turkish counterparts on a joint military operation to suppress the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in order to capture their leaders and evict them from their so-called havens in northern Iraq.

Under the headline Bush’s Turkish Gamble, Novak wrote that the “morass in Iraq, and deepening difficulties in Afghanistan, have not deterred the Bush administration from taking on a dangerous and questionable new secret operation.” He added that what senior US officials aim by taking part in this “covert activity” is “forestalling Turkey from invading Iraq”. This dispute between Turkey and the PKK dates back to 1984, with the former blaming PKK violence for more than 30,000 deaths.

Parallel with the tensions and troubles associated with the Turkish-Kurdish dispute, and almost as a sign of mixed blessing, the UNSC endorsed last week a resolution co-sponsored by the USA and the UK to boost the scope of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) that would accompany the extension of its mandate for another year. The resolution envisages a greatly-expanded political role for the UN in Iraq to try to heal the sectarian divide that has riven the country since the US-led invasion in 2003. In its essence, the four-year-old UNAMI is now meant to help with national dialogue and internal reconciliation between the different communities as well as with its neighbours on border security, energy and refugees. It is also meant to co-ordinate reconstruction programmes and aid as well promote economic reform.

So where does Iraq stand today in the face of all those winds blowing over the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers? Is it possible that someone could propose a golden bullet, a panacea, for the interminable conflicts rending the country apart?

Here in Britain, we have already reduced our presence in southern Iraq: from an initial 30,000 ground troops, the expectation is that there will be no more than 5,000 by the end of this summer. None will be based in urban areas, and those who remain will be quartered at an airbase outside Basra. Their primary mission will be training Iraqis to take over security responsibilities, while doing limited counterinsurgency operations.

However, the same cannot be said of the US presence in Iraq as the Administration and both Houses squabble over the best way of bringing the troops home. Yet, using a script similar to that of the UK by suggesting a reduction in numbers and urban exposure alone would not in my opinion render US troops much safer or Iraq much quieter. In Basra, police forces are infiltrated by sectarian militias, and some political pundits claim that the British withdrawal will cede huge areas to criminal gangs and rival Shi’ite militias. Correspondingly, in Baghdad, the situation would become increasingly uglier and more - rather than less - violent. By super-imposing a British scenario from a different part of southern Iraq onto the American situation, with much larger numbers and different demographics, one could perceive how such a drawdown could lead to enhanced violence and mayhem - albeit of a slightly different orientation and direction.

In a lecture at the International Centre or Ethnic Studies (ICES) on 29th July, Gareth Evans, President of International Crisis Group spoke about the limits of “state sovereignty” versus the “responsibility to protect” in the 21st century. He talked about the inception and evolution of the concept of Responsibility to Protect (known in popular parlance as R2P) starting with the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001 to the UN 60th Anniversary World Summit in 2005 and until the present times when this concept has already become an accepted international norm, with the real potential to evolve further into a rule of customary international law.

According to Evans, Iraq at the time of the coalition invasion in 2003 was not an R2P situation. Although there were clearly major human rights violations continuing to occur (which justified international concern and response, for example by way of censure and economic sanctions), and although mass atrocity crimes had clearly occurred in the past (against the Kurds in the late 1980s and the southern Shi’ites in the early 1990s), Evans argued that such crimes were neither actually occurring nor apprehended when the coalition invaded the country in early 2003. By contrast, he added, it would be proper to characterise the situation now in July 2007 as an R2P one, because there is every reason to fear - particularly in the context of a precipitate withdrawal of foreign forces from the centre of the country - that the present situation, bad as it is, will rapidly deteriorate into massive outbreak of communal and sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing beyond the capacity of the Iraqi government to control, and from which it would be unconscionable for the wider world to stand aloof.

Even if one stretched the threshold criterion for R2P in terms of the seriousness of human rights’ threat to its absolute limit in the case of Iraq in 2003, it does not take much analysis - even looking just at what we knew then, not now - to generate grave doubts as to whether the balance of consequences of an invasion could possibly be positive.

It seems to me that the next chapter now is the comprehensive status report that will be submitted to the White House and Congress by General David H Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and Ryan C Crocker, the American Ambassador in Iraq, no later than 15th September. President Bush constantly affirms that the report will become the centrepiece of his Iraq strategy. Rarely has so much depended on one man and his assessment of what he has accomplished in just seven months, and although I expect the report to provide the US Administration with another lifeline, I still doubt that time is on the side of the US-led coalition.

Something has to be done - soon - to change the dynamics of the situation that has led Iraq and its rulers to the abyss. One need only think of the four truck bombs that killed so many faultless people in Qahtaniya and Jazeera, two towns  northwest of Mosul that are populated with members of the Yazidi minority (members of a pre-Islamic Kurdish sect of several hundred thousand in northern Iraq and Syria). What about the abductions, kidnappings, and killings: so many victims, so much death and such mayhem that is at times perpetrated in the name of an irreligious religiosity that sows further instability?

The situation in Iraq reminds one of Waiting for Godot.  The plot of Samuel Beckett’s play is simple. Two tramps are waiting by a sickly looking tree for the arrival of Godot. They quarrel, make up, contemplate suicide, try to sleep, eat a carrot and gnaw on some chicken bones. Two other characters appear, a master and a slave, who perform a grotesque scene in the middle of the play. A young boy arrives to say that Godot will not come today, but that he will come tomorrow. The play is a development of the title, Waiting for Godot, who does not come and the two tramps resume their vigil by the tree, which sprouts a few leaves overnight, symbolizing a possible order in a thoroughly alienated world.

Absurdity and hope are two intertwined themes in Beckett’s play that are also being reproduced daily in Iraq. Is it not high time for an Iraqi Godot to appear so this country can once again heal its wounds and strengthen its stirrups for the future?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   14 August


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